Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Top Ten Things: AJ Styles Matches (Pre-WWE)

Welcome to another Top Ten Things, here at!  In honor of WWE newcomer AJ Styles' WrestleMania debut, I thought I'd look back at the pre-WWE career of this truly remarkable athlete. 

AJ's career dates back to 1998, when he burst on the scene in NWA Wildside before a new promotion called TNA snapped him up and made him a cornerstone in their X-Division.  Simultaneously an indie promotion known as Ring of Honor collected all the best talent from around the world, and Styles now had two prominent companies in which to make a splash.  He would create a stellar body of work in both companies, quickly earning a reputation as one of the best pound-for-pound workers in the business.  In 2014 his decade-long run in TNA was over, and he made the jump to New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he'd add a gritty, strike-based dimension to his dazzling in-ring arsenal.  In only two years AJ would amass easily a dozen Match of the Year candidates, feuding with the best stars in the company.  Then in January 2016 he'd finally sign with WWE, making a huge debut at the Royal Rumble.  In his first 18 months in WWE AJ has delivered multiple top-notch bouts and won the WWE Title, while adjusting perfectly to the WWE product.  Regardless what level of success he achieves in Titanland, one cannot deny that AJ is one of the most innovative, special talents in the history of pro wrestling, with a body of work that speaks for itself.

Here now are AJ's top ten matches, pre-WWE.....

10. Bryan Danielson vs. AJ Styles - Dissension - 1.28.06

Danielson and Styles had fought each other before, but this was the best match they ever had.  The crown jewel of ROH and the cornerstone of TNA faced each other in early 2006 in a brilliant, evenly-contested match in which Danielson repeatedly goaded Styles into losing his cool.  This match demonstrated Bryan's gift at playing the cocky heel, and after 31 minutes of tremendous back and forth, he narrowly retained the ROH Title.  I could watch these two fight all day long, and it really sucks we won't get to see this pairing in WWE.

9. Petey Williams vs. AJ Styles vs. Chris Sabin - Final Resolution

Ultimate X was a fairly goofy gimmick match, but in 2005 Williams, Styles and Sabin made it work, creating one of the best and most innovative spotfests I've ever seen.  Resisting the traditional three-way format where one guy is almost always resting while the other two duke it out, they strung together super creative spots that involved all three participants, building to a sensational climax.  An early TNA highlight.

8. AJ Styles vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi - G1 Climax 25 Day 17

This was just EPIC.  27 minutes of exemplary storytelling with the top Block A spot hanging in the balance.  AJ's Bullet Club members were not at ringside, so there was no outside shenanigans, and the result was the best match these two have ever had together.  I was fully expecting AJ to take this one, so the suspense in the final minutes was palpable as Tanahashi hit multiple Hi-Fly Flows to win the Block.

7. AJ Styles vs. Minoru Suzuki - G1 Climax 24 Day 7

Voted Wrestling Observer's Best Match of 2014, this pitted AJ's explosive aerial offense against Suzuki's gritty MMA attack, and the result was one helluva fight where both men's stables got involved mid-match.  Suzuki worked AJ's arm like crazy, and at one point AJ amazingly countered an armbreaker with a one-armed version of the Styles Clash before hitting the full version for the win.  Great, great match.

6. Christopher Daniels vs. AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe - Unbreakable - 9.11.05

Styles, Daniels and Joe.  These were the three men on whose backs TNA was built.  While the main event scene mostly consisted of former WWE and WCW talent, these three men were blowing the rest of the card out of the water in the X-Division.  This three-way match was the first and only TNA bout to earn a five-star rating from the Wrestling Observer, and it's not hard to see why.  These three ring generals interwove their dazzling offense seamlessly, stringing together nearly 23 minutes of breathtaking action, as if to say "We all know THIS is the reason people watch TNA!"

5. AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe vs. Christopher Daniels - Turning Point - 11.15.09

Four years later Styles, Joe and Daniels did it all again, this time for the TNA World Title, and I'll be goddamned if this match didn't at least equal if not one-up its groundbreaking predecessor.  Late 2009 marked the last time the TNA product really felt like it was on-track, and this main event was the perfect illustration of the company's renewed (if shortlived) focus on its top homegrown talent.  The combatants utilized four extra years of experience to temper the action with subtle storytelling techniques, creating a spectacular companion piece to their first encounter.  Along with the Unbreakable match, this is one of the best Triple Threats I've ever seen.

4. AJ Styles vs. Kazuchika Okada - Dominion - 7.6.15

AJ Styles and Kazuchika Okada are both masters of their craft.  Early on Styles' Bullet Club got involved on multiple occasions, but after they were expelled from ringside by the referee the match settled into a wonderful example of Styles-Okada storytelling.  Both guys threw every one of their signature moves at each other, and the match culminated in one of the most amazing closing stretches I can recall.  The counters and reversals on display were truly incredible.  After twenty-six minutes Okada finally regained the IWGP Title, capping off one of the more emotional Championship quests in recent years.

3. AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe - Turning Point - 12.11.05

In December 2005 Samoa Joe and AJ Styles told a story between the ropes that has seldom been equaled before or since.  Joe arrived in TNA that summer and was immediately pushed as an unstoppable monster, who had his way with basically everyone in the X-Division.  AJ was the superbly skilled conquering hero; the last line of defense against Joe's reign of terror.  The pace started out methodical but escalated continously throughout the match.  Joe dominated AJ with his brutal moveset, but the defiant Styles refused to back down, eventually kicking out of Joe's pin attempts at the one-count just to stick it to the villain.  Blood pouring out of his mouth, Styles managed to lift the 280-pounder up for the Styles Clash, and despite diminished height the move still looked absolutely vicious.  Joe kicked out however, and finished AJ with the rear naked choke, capping off one of the best examples of pure in-ring storytelling I've ever seen.

2. AJ Styles vs. Kota Ibushi - Invasion Attack - 4.10.15

After regaining the IWGP title that February, AJ set his sights on New Japan Cup winner Kota Ibushi, and these two aerial masters engaged in a breathtaking battle.  Ibushi proved a perfect complement to AJ, putting together some absolutely tremendous exchanges.  The finish came when AJ countered Ibushi's Phoenix Splash, catching him mid-flip and delivering the Styles Clash.  This is one of the most spectacular match endings I've ever seen, and their match would go down as a very underappreciated MOTY candidate.

1. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles - WrestleKingdom 10 - 1.4.16

At WK10 the semi-main event went to probably the most anticipated pairing in NJPW history, Shinsuke Nakamura vs. AJ Styles, and it did not disappoint.  If Styles was still suffering from his recent back injury you wouldn't know it by watching this.  Aside from toning down his aerial assault AJ wrestled a near-perfect match and even worked his back injury into a "goldbricking" spot.  Nakamura was amazing as always, and these two A-plus players put together an instant Match of the Year contender.  Both men would leave for WWE right after this, and so this amazing bout would be the exclamation point on both men's remarkable time in New Japan.

That's the list for Mr. Styles.  Comment below if I've missed any of your favorite AJ matches!

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